Author: Reid Barbour
Published by Oxford University Press
Browne? Never heard of him!
In this biography Reid Barbour establishes Browne as a unique subject, while at the same time confirming that the author is also a man of learning and of handsome competence as a biographer.
Upon a rippling, pulsating bed of words, the scenes of Browne’s childhood, and their impact upon his thinking are recounted with a colourful timbre.
Barbour’s piquant recounting of Browne’s time at Winchester are an enticing hors d’oeuvre to his life story, and will have you rolling in clover at the richness of the text.
Browne’s days at Winchester are a sojourn into the golden realms of grammar education secure in the pastoral, educational and demanding mentoring of his teachers. Where scriptural and historical criticism are explored deeper and deeper as his school days progressed.
The grammar curriculum in Winchester (the classics and Christian philosophy for example) is a pastiche of inkwells and polished desk lids banging thought into shape.
As the words carry us on to Browne’s time at Oxford, we have settled into a feast of many courses with each course whetting the appetite for the next.
Immersed in the logic, philosophy and religion of his Oxford tutors’ tautology we see Browne turning to medicine. The pleasure for the reader lies in feeling that the flow of words and ideas are the nursery bed for the man we know Browne will become as the pedagogical cataracts are transversed.
To luxuriate on Barbour’s exposition of the emergence of critical thought, and the sheer joy for Browne of growing mindfulness under his Oxford tutors, is to drink again of a golden age.
By page 95 of this 500-page book, Browne has turned seriously to medicine.
Browne’s early footsteps into medical learning are as multi-dimensional (within the constraints of contemporary understanding) as modern medical students are within evidence based medicine. The balance of book learning and bedside clinical experience is evident from the outset.
In an aside about books that would be found useful in the anatomy room, we meet Gabriele Fallopio. No other textual annotations, we just meet him strolling through the text. Then who should walk past but Dr Bartholin. This is not the introduction of a personae dramatis intended to impress, but simply a part of the scenery of Browne’s continental peregrinations. After leaving Oxford he journeyed in 1631 to 1634 to: Montpellier, Padua and Leiden for a broader conceptualization of medical learning. A mixture of medicine still coloured by the all-pervasive religious thought of the times. Montpellier introduced Browne to an abundance of herbal material used by the innumerable apothecaries.
The lineage of medical and philosophical thought is the golden thread that runs throughout his medical training and these clinical sabbaticals on the continent.
Back in UK he settled first in Halifax to work on converting his Leiden qualifications into a doctorate to practice. He then settled in Norwich where he married and had children.
Browne was a learned man and the mysteries of flora and fauna were all part of his mental cornucopia which he explores in his famous books.
This biography is a gargantuan medical-biopic of “War and Peace” dimensions, where to travel is more enjoyable than arriving.
As Browne matures into an established physician and member of the learned societies, he is knighted in 1671. Acknowledgement that Browne was a rare intellectual and a true polymath.
When Barbour ends his biography with the death of Sir Thomas Browne we are uplifted by a sang-froid that many a physician would wish to emulate. When he self-diagnosed the cause of the symptoms of his own mortal affliction, he refused all medication from the attending physicians and passed away with “all quietness”.
I did not want the biography to end – but I am sure Browne would have insisted.